In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Chukas, the Jews near the the Promised Land. In preparation, they ask the king of Edom to allow them to pass through their land (20:14-17).
As they presented their request, they described their background and told Edom how they suffered in the hands of the Egyptians, and how they screamed in prayer to God and God sent them their salvation. One can easily understand that they wished to convey to the people of Edom the suffering they experienced in hope that Edom would have mercy upon them. But why was it relevant to mention the fact that they prayed and that their prayers were accepted?
Rashi on Parshas Chukas explains that they were alluding to the fact that they possessed a great power – the power of prayer. While they were seeking the compassion of Edom, they wanted to simultaneously include an element of intimidation, by hinting that they possessed a great power they could utilize. In fact, this message was not overlooked by the king of Edom. In response, he warned the Jews that if they dare attempt to pass, he will greet them with the sword. Rashi comments on this and says that the king of Edom was expressing that he was not impressed with their pride in their powers, and he too had a power he inherited from his forefathers – the power of the sword.
As Jews, we understand that our fate is solely in the hands of God. While we should engage in what seems to be practical actions to reach our goals, we know that it’s not in our power to yield the desired results. There is a Higher Power in charge, and we must turn to Him to grant our wishes. In fact, the Derech Hashem states (4:5) that the greatest endeavor one should engage in when taking care of his needs is prayer.
There was once a wealthy Jew in Pressburg who attended a meeting with a government official. The Jew came along with his gentile butler, and the butler noticed that the official had left his wallet unattended. The butler managed to discreetly nab the wallet, but he was afraid to be caught with it so he kept it in his boss’s home. Before long, the official realized his wallet was missing, and he got the police on the case. The police began a search and indeed found the wallet in the possession of the Jew. The Jew was arrested until the trial, although it was pretty much a closed case. The prosecutor had solid evidence with no room for doubt that the Jew was guilty of outright theft from a prominent government official, and would presumably be put to death for his crime.
The Ksav Sofer was the Rabbi of Pressburg at the time, and he was sure of the suspect’s innocence. He tried giving bribes and speaking to influential people, to no avail. The night before the trial, his father, the Chasam Sofer, came to him in a dream and said, “An innocent Jew from your town is about to be murdered tomorrow! How can you be sleeping?!”
“I did everything I possibly can to save him,” replied the Ksav Sofer. “What else should I do?” But there was one more thing he could do.
“Did you pray?” asked the Chasam Sofer. The Ksav Sofer took the cue and quickly sent his students to awaken the townspeople. In the middle of the night, everyone gathered in the synagogue. The Ksav Sofer stood up in front of the assembled and proclaimed, “All the doors have been shut before me. But there is one door which remains open. With the power of prayer, we will save our dear friend!” All the people poured out their hearts in prayer the rest of the night.
The following morning the hearing began. On a whim, the judge decided to summon the Jew’s butler for questioning. The butler was caught off guard, and as the questioning progressed, the butler could not maintain his story with consistency. It wasn’t long before the butler broke down and admitted to his crime. In the end, he was the one who was hung, not the innocent Jew. When we find ourselves in a predicament, we naturally take every course of action we imagine may help. Often, it is only after we did everything we could that we resort to prayer as an afterthought. We fail to realize how backwards this attitude is. True, God expects us to take action and not sit by idly. However, this is not where emphasis should be. Our primary endeavor should be prayer. Prayer is the weapon of a Jew. Prayer is where our true power lies in gaining salvation. Prayer is the most effective means in getting our wishes fulfilled.
Parshas Chukas by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (email@example.com)